Plenty of time remains to perform the ritual post-mortem of the General Assembly; it still breathes, and will use its final hours to hammer down a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. There is other, necessary business, and the close of a legislative session is an oddly fitting time to address it. For it was an earlier General Assembly, one which sat almost a half-century ago, that equipped this newspaper to perform the public service readers have a right to expect.
It was 1967. Winthrop Rockefeller was beginning his first year as governor and Robert S. McCord was beginning his third decade as a journalist. The two men, along with innumerable others, had a shared frustration: the ability of those in power, at every level of government, to shut the door against the people who paid for government, who paid for the upkeep of government buildings, paid for government programs, who paid the salaries of government officials. Government was private business, confidential, whenever those in government were moved to so declare it. None of your business, no matter that it very much was the peoples’ business.
Want to see some voter registration data? We can’t find it. Curious about the bids for road graders? We lost them. That contract for vending machines in the courthouse? Don’t worry about it. That memo from the city attorney, the school board’s counsel, the quorum court’s lawyer? That’s privileged. Interest paid on tax deposits? Why do you want to know? That department head, the one who’s bungled his job, we’ll be discussing what went wrong but that’s “personal” so we’re closing the meeting and you have to leave. Maybe we’ll tell you — someday. Then again, maybe we won’t.
None of your business. Your money, your government; your roads, your schools, your elections —yet none of your business. Ludicrous, certainly, but it was the prevailing ethic of the ruling class, had been for decades; and as an open invitation to chicanery it was regularly, eagerly accepted by many of those entrusted with the public good.
Rockefeller’s election signaled the majority’s weariness with business as usual and a willingness to consider new approaches to government, not the least of which was to open it to the people who were, after all, paying for it. Accountability, it is sometimes called. Rockefeller found a willing partner in McCord, or perhaps it was the other way around? Regardless, the two men made common cause. By then owner and editor of the North Little Rock Times, McCord, more than any other journalist in Arkansas, became the advocate of open government. He and Rockefeller had help, certainly, but they were the engine, the drive train and the fuel that became the Freedom of Information Act. That it revolutionized government in Arkansas is not an overstatement.
In his last news conference before leaving office, Rockefeller did not hesitate to identify it as the greatest legislative accomplishment of his tenure.
In most every session of the General Assembly some member will find some reason to amend the FOI, as it is commonly called, invariably weakening it, and sometimes, as in this session, they succeed.
The last several attempts at sealing off what ought to be public information were unknown to Bob, who would have been appalled, because his last years were clouded by Alzheimer’s disease. Robbed of his memory and kept from the keyboard, he was seen after by his wonderful wife of six decades, Muriel (“Moo”), a native New Yorker who found in Bob the man of her dreams, as she was the woman of his. Together they made a wonderful life for themselves and their three children in North Little Rock, where they were pillars (even though some of Bob’s fellow pillars, the corporate and government types, found his exertions in behalf of the larger citizenry quite annoying).
That Bob mentored me is hardly a distinction (and one from which he might cringe); he mentored hundreds of journalists over a career that included not only the newspaper he owned, then sold, but his work as a senior editor at both statewide dailies, one of them no longer in existence. Upon his departure from one of them, a colleague published an appreciation of Bob that declared “his credentials as a journalist are scrupulously in order.”
Indeed they were. But so were his credentials as a man, and as a citizen. Which is why his death, at age 84, completes the loss that began with Alzheimer’s.
If you did not know Bob McCord, then know this: You live in a town, a county and a state that is better, cleaner and more promising because of him.